“The circus arrives without warning” very much sums up the intricately woven and highly lyrical work of Erin Morgenstern’s first novel “The Night Circus,” as it will pull you into its delicate web when you least expect it. Blending fantastic details with a large cast of active characters, one would expect an dazzling, enthralling experience characteristic of the work’s respective title. In some ways it delivers beautifully, but I’ll admit, personally, that I had to push myself through some painful spots to see the value in this work – which I ended up loving and appreciating what it offered. The way the novel ties off toward the end provides a pay off that I enjoyed, and would mark as one of the work’s shining moments.
To compare this to Harry Potter or Twilight is actually doing this work a disservice, because “The Night Circus” is really nothing like them, albeit a loose connection of magic and young lovers forbidden to be together. This is, quite frankly, an adult novel woven in the measure of magical realism. I’m not going to say that some YA readers won’t be able to enjoy this (I know I probably would’ve considering my pallate of reading at that age), but it’s a hard line to consider. The author uses a very distinct third-person present voice, jumps between several different time points and character perspectives, AND has blurbs that make the reader feel as if they’re experiencing the actual circus within the imagery in certain passages. It can be, even for an adult reader, confusing and overwhelming in spurts. If I were to make a few major criticisms of the work, it would be that its presentation could’ve been less disjointed with the characters and their subsequent development, and perhaps provide a better blend between the imagery, the characterization and presentation. The imagery is superb – the characterization has its individual shining points, but the presentation is quite abstract. Everything else is quite the journey once the ball hits the ground and starts rolling.
If I could describe similar works to “The Night Circus” – I would draw upon a few of the works of Alice Hoffman, Mary Robinette Kowal (“Shades of Milk and Honey”), Christopher Priest (“The Prestige”) and perhaps Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked this Way Comes” or Neil Gaiman’s “Stardust”. All of them share one prominent thing in common – a world functioning within the realm of magical realism, and as far as “Shades of Milk and Honey,” “The Prestige” and “The Night Circus” go – all historical fiction.
“The Night Circus” offers a story that is one part a kaleidoscope of senses, visualizations, and active imagery, and a projected, epic love story. There are truly no mystic, grandiose battles to be had here, and if there are, it would most certainly be of the kind where people are manipulative and supernatural forces bearing weight in a mental game threaten to come crashing down. The work centers around Celia and Marco, children trained in their magical abilities to face off against each other in a battle of power by two surrogates who take them under their care. They were never intended to meet each other in any other capacity but to square off with only one winner. However, once they grew up and met outside the terms of their battle – they fell in love. Of course, various forces conspire to keep them apart, and it plays out in the measure of a fairy tale of lovers colliding – sometimes in beautiful ways, though I felt it could’ve commenced a bit sooner and with a little further development.
The novel also includes a larger supporting cast including the young Bailey, who desperately wants to carve out his own future and feels enthralled in his visits to the circus, the twins Poppet and Widget – who are charming to watch in their interactions, the contortionist Tuskiko, and tarot reader Isobel, among others who color within the lines of this picturesque novel. They’re interesting to see in their interactions, but I would argue it’s hard to get to know them, given you’re jumping back and forth between their storylines in a given stretch, and it’s hard to keep up with how one thread may tie in with the other. By the time you read someone else’s story thread, you may find yourself saying “Wait, so what were Marco and Celia doing the last time?” That’s part of why this isn’t a five star read for me because it doesn’t necessarily hit you with that extra connection on the personable aspects of the characterization. But it is fun, charming, and sweet in spurts.
I give it an extra star above what I would normally, considering the audiobook is narrated by the wonderful Jim Dale, who delivers a great performance of the novel with due conviction and eloquence.
As a suggestion, if you read “The Night Circus” while playing Poets of the Fall’s “Carnival of Rust” in the background, it coincides with the book’s theme and setting – which is honestly amazing and a little scary at the same time. Don’t believe me? Give the video a shot (it’s by one of my personal favorite bands):
In short, I would recommend this novel for those who want an aesthetically pleasing journey into a world like and unlike our own. It’s full of imagination, and while it may take some time to find the sweet spot of the novel, it’s worth the price of admission.
Overall score: 4/5